How I Replaced 3 External Hard Drives with the Cloud

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External Hard Drives suck. They take up space, USB ports and are far from a secure place to keep your precious photos and videos.

I used to have three external hard drives, now I have none. In this post, I’ll explain how I got rid of them and how you can too.

A while back I switched from Dropbox to Google Drive since they are now offering 1TB of data for just $10 a month. But the change had a few unexpected benefits, one of which was allowing me to get rid of my external drives.

Too Many Drives!

While getting 1TB of space on Google Drive was awesome, I still had an issue. My data was everywhere… I had different data on two different computers, three external drives and none of my drives were 1TB! So I couldn’t use my whole 1TB, in fact using just even a fraction of it would fill up the tiny 120GB SSD on my Macbook Air.

This set up was not an issue with a 100GB Dropbox account, as I could fit all the data on all my devices, but with the extra data I was loading into Google Drive something had to change.

Selective Syncing Salvation

First thing I needed to do was activate selective sync on my MacBook Air (and later my PC). Selective sync allows you to choose which folders to sync or not in your Google Drive settings.

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But simply unsyncing some folders didn’t prove to be effective. I had folders that were “consolidated” folders such as education and videos for which I wanted to access some of the data but not all of it. I also wanted to be able to add files to those folders and get them off my Air without deleting them (an activity previously done with my external drives) since it has limited space.

The “z. ONLINE FILES” Folder

To do this, I had to create a new folder structure inside Google Drive.
tomove 1First, I created a folder called “z. Online Files”. I put an z at the front so it would always be at the bottom of my list. I then replicated most of my folder structure in Google Drive by creating folders for “photos, videos, education, work plus a couple of others like “backups” and “random”.

The “To Move” Folder

I then created a folder called “to move” and put that in the base directory of Drive. I split up my core directories like “work” and “photos” between the normal and the online folders. I move stuff I don’t need synced to my local drive into the “to move” folder and once every couple of weeks I login to Google Drive through the browser and move everything in the “to move” folder into their relative folders in the online structure. This doesn’t take any time since they’re already uploaded and synced with Google Drive.

And that’s it. I can keep hundreds of gigs of data in Google Drive without it taking up space on my Air, just like I did with my external drives. Since I get so much space with Google Drive, it didn’t even cost me anything!

The Not So Dark Side of Cloud Storage

One major downside is that having the data not synced with your computer can make it harder to access when compared with an external drive which is almost instant. While this is technically a downside, it’s not as bad as you might think.

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Also Check out: [ninja-popup ID=4620]25 Google Drive Tips you’ve Probably Never Heard of[/ninja-popup]

Firstly, as I am sure you know, Googles servers are fast, like really fast, everywhere in the world. I’m almost certain Google has better infrastructure than Dropbox and Box and probably better than Microsoft too. You can take a walk around their data centers if you don’t believe me.

This speed means accessing files is fast. If you need to resync a few files you can easily jump into Google Drive on your browser (or phone/tablet) and move it to a folder that is synced with your device. Or if you just need a couple of relatively small files you can download them straight from the browser.

I rarely need to do this however as looking at photos, watching videos and reading documents can all be done through the Google Drive web or mobile interface, which is what I generally find myself doing and if you’re on a decent connection the delay in accessing these files is fractions of a second.

Another issue people may have is that they don’t have access to the files when offline. This is valid if you’re someone who is away from the internet for large periods of time and needs access to this data. But for the rest of us who have at least a 3G connection on their phone, your documents, photos, videos and everything else are easily accessible from any device wherever you are (try plugging your external drive into your phone!).

Should You get Rid of your External Drives?

Getting rid of my external drives is a nice step towards a more minimalistic life. Yes maybe sometimes I can’t get the file I need during a blackout, or having to wait a few minutes for a document to download can be a bit irritating. But having access to my data from all my devices and knowing my data is being stored somewhere that is secure and actually backed up (vs thrown around in my bag somewhere) makes it totally worth it.

I don’t think I’m going back.

Do you still use external drives?

BONUS: External Hard Drive Backup Checklist

Check out these 25 Ninja Google Drive Tips!

[ninja-popup ID=4620]Google Drive Tips[/ninja-popup]

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Vinay Patankar

CEO and Co-Founder of Process Street. Sign-up for his free systems masterclass or find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


So much for, “Don’t Be Evil.”
On November 6, 2014, Google confirmed to me, on an hour-long tech support call for Google Drive, that there exists an upload/download file size asymmetry, which will result in users losing uploaded files that exceed 2GB in size if a local copy is not kept. While users are permitted to upload files up to 5TB in size, they are allowed to download and/or synchronize files up to only 2GB in size. This HUGE TB/GB asymmetry results in users losing large files uploaded to Google Drive if a local copy is not kept. Uploading files larger than 2GB serves no purpose (for the user). Files exceeding 2GB will be lost forever, guaranteed by Google; they will be visible on Google Drive, but beyond access.

it turns out that the person that Google with whom I spent over an hour on the telephone was poorly trained and uninformed. While it is true that one may not download a file of greater than two gigabytes from Google Drive, those same files will indeed synchronize to a user’s PC, effectively allowing for a download.

It turns out that the information I received from Google yesterday, as part of an hour long tech support telephone call about Google Drive, was incorrect. Their employee was poorly trained and uninformed. While users are limited to downloading files that are two gigabytes and smaller, files that are larger than that will still synchronize to a user’s PC.

Thanks for sharing your workflow. I think this works well for personal backup, but one of the main advantages of Dropbox/Google Drive is collaborating with others. I collaborate with numerous groups, and our collective shared data is bigger than my hard drive. Much of this is archival in nature (at least from my point of view, even if someone else in the collaboration is using the information more regularly). I can unsync the entire shared folder and reclaim HD space, but if I need to work with a file related to a collaboration, I then either have to resend the entire shared folder or gain access through the web interface, copy the relevant files out, work with them locally, and then reupload them. I find this very awkward.

What I’d ideally like to do is simply treat a shared folder as remote – i.e., as networked attached storage drive without a local copy – but still have the benefit of the intuitive Dropbox/Google Drive integration with my Mac’s File Manager. Any suggestions?

So it doesn’t sound like you use Google Drive for backup? What do you use for backup? External drives still seem better at that. Definitely be careful with them though.

I agree with Antony’s idea as well. If it didn’t send a local copy of every single file to every one of your computers, then your MacBook Air wouldn’t be filled up instantly. It should be an option to not sync like that, and I don’t mean picking and choosing online folders, it should be a basic option when you install Google Drive on a new system to not store local copies of Drive files. It could still display the files the same, but would download them when you try to copy or open or whatever.

I’m running into many of these issues now…with a prior Mac Air (stolen) and my New Mac book Pro (250gb flash drive) I’m learning that I need some new strategies.

I’m also doing video editing now, and with file sizes what they are.. and the fact that I need to share them, I’d love any recommendations.

I also use both Dropbox and Google drive, sounds like Google drive might be a better solution….

Just curious… if you uploaded pirated movies into your Google Drive, will Google then delete them and disable your account?

One advantage for Dropbox is on the Mac you can sync 3 folders down and leave the rest of the data on the Cloud. Thank for the information it has been a real eye opener.

If you use the google drive website in google chrome you can upload and download large files and folders by dragging and dropping from external HDs plugged in via USB. No need to mess around with the google drive app when the website is great!

I’m with the comments mentioned above. I want to be able to see all the files within my Google Drive folder locally, but I don’t want them stored on my actual computer. In the same way that iCloud stores all my photos and videos from my iPhone in the cloud, and downloads them as required. The thumbnail exists in the gallery but the full image/video file is in the cloud.

Thanks, Vinay, for your article. Am I understanding correctly that both Dropbox as well as Drive stores files on your hard drive? I have a landscape architectural firms and my architects work from home. We are currently using Deopbox for business. Since we work with so many large files (AutoCAD) the storage of these files is consuming too much memory on their individual computers. I am looking for a better solution. Thank you

Hey Rodney, yes that is correct. You can use the above method with both Dropbox and Google Drive (selectively syncing folders on your computer, and keeping some on the cloud).

Thanks Vinay, I was/am in a similar situation with lots of machines with lots of external HDD’s containing some active and some passive files. After having an external HDD failure (wife nearly killed me as it contained her coursework) I configured the directory to back-up to my 1Tb Google drive and sync with the data on another external HDD. That drive also failed (well showing as not recognised on a number of PC’s – failure TBC) so to avoid immediate castration I looked for options to use my cloud storage as the permanent file store (As OneDrive appears in Office). I found out about Google Drive Add-In for Office which does just that – lists your Google cloud storage as directly accessible from Office. Its not quite as simple as storing locally but on first impressions seems to work – so it makes Google Drive a viable file store. this Add-in doesn’t seem particularly well know but should be.

One caveat I am going to take an additional copy of the data using Drive Sync to a new 1Tb external drive, but if the above works will use Google as my primary file store and my external HDD as the back-up (!). My thoughts being that Google Drive access & functionality will only improve over time and the external HDD is guaranteed to fail at some point.

I’d appreciate any thoughts on this approach.

Hey Grant,

I was looking to do the same set up as you with having Google Drive as my primary and an external as a backup. Have you set this up yet? And how is it working for you?

Any updates on how google drive handles files larger than 2gb?
I know if I have a folder of images larger it will break them up but I haven’t tried uploading and downloading a .mov file or something that is bigger than 2gb as a single file.
I really want to implement a system like this for myself but most of my files are .mov or logic X audio sessions larger than 2gb.

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